We’ve begun processing our Wagyu calves with a second round of vaccinations for Snake River Farms that we plan to ship in the first week of May. Each calf gets an Electronic Identification (EID) button and a tag to match at the same time. These calves are from our first-calf heifers that we poured the hay to from last July into December because of the short feed and to keep our first-calf heifers in shape to cycle and breed back. We don’t have to run the numbers to know that these calves won’t bring enough to pay for the hay we fed.
Every feed season is different, even in a drought. The Christmas rains saved our bacon, over 3 inches or nearly a third of our rainfall to date. And again, in the nick of time, two storm at the end of February and beginning of March that offered nearly 1 ½ inches. The three events made pretty decent feed in the corrals above and elsewhere as we approach the end our rainy season—nothing forecast for the next two weeks—proving once again that it’s not the quantity of rain, but the timing that’s most important in the cattle business.
With a shortage of water to irrigate alfalfa in California, hay will be expensive. Having cut our herd by a third last year (6 inches total), we hope there will be enough old feed to carry us through until November without feeding much hay in our upper country. However, we’ll have to help our younger cows in our lower country where the south and west slopes have already turned brown. How many will be the question.
We couldn’t keep any replacement heifers last year, and may not this year as the market gets stronger. We’ll be making lots of decisions in the coming thirty days as we begin to harvest this year’s crop and plan for the next.
Even though I haven’t been in the mood to post anything, I would be remiss not to journal one of the worst drought years in my lifetime, less rainfall (6.19”) than we received in 2013-14 (7.78”) during our 4-year drought of 2012-2016. After feeding hay all summer long into the fall in 2013, we finally had to sell half of our cowherd in 2015.
Currently, all that our steep hillsides have to offer is a short blond fuzz of dry grass that will soon be dust. I remember the drought of ’77 when the cows licked the grass seed to augment what hay we fed them. Knowing what’s ahead, we’ve begun gathering to wean early and have already sent a bunch of good cows to the kill plant, many of which had calves in their bellies. Due to the lack of snow in the Sierras, there’s little irrigation water to grow hay and the price is high, while cows aren’t bringing much money. Furthermore, stockwater from our natural springs in the upper country will be in short supply by fall——a perfect storm.
As we cull our cowherd, we’re focusing on a young nucleus as we realize that we’ll not get the money we’ll spend on hay this year with next year’s calf crop. Nevertheless, we’re plodding ahead: leaning forward as we take another step and praying for early rains this fall.
It’s been hard for me to accept that I’ve worn my body out, always able to do any job on the ranch, feeling secure with the strength of my arms, back and legs. I’ve been lucky, but my knees, among other things, are gone. In the past 45 years, I’ve probably handled, loaded and fed, 15,000 tons of hay with Robbin’s help, but looking back, it was the 500 tons in 2013 that did the real damage.
It’s been a blessing having Lee Loverin and Terri Blanke feed for the past two seasons, as well as fix and build fence, help gather and work our cattle. They know the ranch and our routine and take it seriously.
Cropped and shot with a Canon 100-400mm zoom, I should have known the girls were separately counting cows and calves to make sure everyone was present and accounted for—it’s part of our job when we feed. But at 300 yards away, I took the photo for a different aesthetic. With the photo enlarged, imagine my pride, and my relief, knowing the girls are getting the job done right, and that the ranch can get along fine without me being a part of every single thing. Now that’s a treat.
Enough rain to give the grass a good start in most places, we’re still feeding hay, a treat for these second calvers close to the house. We were especially glad to see this calf on the ground, its mother spending most of the month of August uncomfortably in pain, having difficulty walking with slow, short strides to hay and the water trough. A week or two before it was born, the calf must have shifted within her, as she began getting around again as if nothing was ever wrong.
Ambushed by her calf while on the alfalfa yesterday, this mottled-face Hereford is becoming a little rough-haired, showing the effects of raising a calf. If the calf were thin, we might be concerned and increase the hay, but right now she’s giving all to her calf, taking better care of it than herself—the kind of mothers we want.
The bare south and west slopes struggle as they have dried out since our first good rain on the 18th, but all the weathermen promise another good storm for Monday and Tuesday. With a little luck, we’re near the end of feeding hay as the cows move up into the hills for fresh green grass—a real treat for everyone.
Psychologically, it’s not been difficult to get back into the feeding routine again, having fed continuously from August to April last season with little rain and less grass. And physically, I’m still in fair shape, but after forty-five years of bucking bales, I tend to roll them, rather than muscle them into place on the feed truck. And due to two years of drought, there’s 40% less cows to feed now.
As they begin to calve and have two mouths to feed, it’s essential that the cows are in good shape so that they will be cycling when we put the bulls out on the 1st of December. We ended last season with more dry feed in our upper granite country than in the clay, but still not enough to sustain a cow with a calf very long without hay. If a cow gets thin going into winter when she burns more calories, it takes more hay to get her to cycle than if we had fed her earlier.
Nobody’s starving, but after the last two years, just the sound of the diesel engine brings them to the feed truck. It was a little cooler yesterday, about 85° when we headed up into Greasy Creek, feeding the girls in Belle Point along the way. By the time we got to Greasy Cove the cows were shaded-up on the edge of a near-empty Lake Kaweah, about the only water they have to drink. We can’t take the hay to them, so they have to chug up the hill out of lake bottom to get hay. We didn’t have all the cattle, but left enough on the ground that the rest will get some.
Despite cooler nights and shorter days, stockwater is still an issue as the pond at Ragle Springs is now dry, though the spring is running enough to support a few head. We’re watching the weather hopefully, knowing that we will need near-perfect conditions get a decent feed year: early slow rains to get the grass started well-enough to hold moisture and keep our dry slopes from washing away.